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“Ah, you who hide deep from the Lord your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, ‘Who sees us? Who knows us?’ You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding?’” (Isaiah 29:15–16).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
Like the plot of a good action thriller it goes down to the wire. At the last minute, God mercifully intervenes to deliver Jerusalem from the Assyrian horde poised at the city gate. But something is wrong. The people do not see beyond the immediate threat they have just avoided. They fail to recognize the hand of the Lord or their sin and idolatry that brought them so close to utter ruin. God’s deliverance does nothing to turn them to repentance and the promises of the Messiah. And so the deliverance will only buy them a few more years until the Babylonians come and destroy Jerusalem and the temple. Now that’s judgment!
But Isaiah reveals another aspect of God’s judgment: He will give the people of Jerusalem what they want! They are to continue in their unbelief and rejection as long as they wish. They will see God’s deliverance but will not turn away from sin. They will hear the message of the Gospel but continue to resist God’s grace. God will even prevent them from hearing and seeing the truth and believing it!
The Old Testament is a history of God’s dealing with sinful humanity by grace. No human effort or thought moves God to create Adam. Or call Abraham to be the father of His people. Or bring Israel out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Or promise a Messiah who will undo sin and overcome death. No human faithfulness makes God fulfill His promise. God does all these things for His own sake solely by grace without any merit or worthiness on anyone’s part.
Thank God! Many believe His wonderful promises and trust in His grace. But not all do! The human heart can be so perverse, so unbelieving, so rebellious. Not long after God brings the Israelites out of Egypt, they make a golden calf and worship it. The Lord threatens to consume them with His wrath, but Moses intervenes. And for the next forty years, God patiently endures their grumbling while He tests His people in the wilderness.
During the period of the judges, the people of Israel repeatedly sin against God. He disciplines His rebellious, idolatrous people, sending them difficulties to call them to their senses. They repent and return to the Lord. But the pattern persists. And the sinful cycle escalates. Things get so bad that at the end of Judges we read this sad news: “Everyone did what right in his own eyes” (21:25).
When we come to Isaiah’s day, we reach another level in the war between faith and apostasy. God’s people can no longer even be moved by His discipline. The close call with Assyria doesn’t wake them up. They refuse to listen to the prophets that God sends them. They do not return to the Lord. When they hear the truth, it does not penetrate their faithless hearts, but only confirms their unbelief.
Still, God’s promises are fulfilled. There is still a remnant who remain faithful to the Lord. They trust in Him and treasure the wonderful promises of the Messiah who will save them from sin, death, and the devil. Isaiah ministers to them, giving them hope, strength, and comfort.
A remnant remains, but the majority understand nothing of these promises. Their hearts are far from the Lord. That’s not to say they’ve left the outer trappings of the one true faith. They are very religious. They still have the temple… priests… and rituals. But these are now used for idol worship. Blinded by their sin, they believe this is pleasing to the one true God, but they have lost the true essence of God’s revelation. They do not understand His grace and the promises of the Messiah. No wonder they don’t recognize and accept Him when He comes.
This passage does not speak only of people whose hearts are not in their religion. It also speaks of those whose hearts are sincere and devout but whose beliefs are wrong and without Christ. Such people believe they are worshiping the true God when they follow rules taught by men, or doctrines hatched by demons. Many are devout and zealous in their beliefs, but they are without Christ. Such was Saul of Tarsus before his conversion on the Damascus Road. So it is with the devout adherent of Islam or the sincere Buddhist or dedicated Latter Day Saint.
Even those within the visible Church can have hearts that are far from the Lord. When they abandon the message of the cross and adopt social issues and political agendas, they begin to adhere to rules taught by men. Whenever the free and gracious gifts of God become rewards earned by human behavior, worship and religion become hollow ritual, not meaningful spiritual communion with the Lord.
Isaiah compares the sinful and rebellious human heart to a potter and his clay pot, imagery that dates back to the account of God forming Adam. For the clay to command the potter turns things upside down. How foolish for the pot to deny its maker, to challenge his authority, or to claim that its maker has no knowledge or skill. Yet sinners do deny their Maker and so challenge the knowledge and action of the Lord and Creator of all. Think about it. Every time we sin, every time we write our own religion, we do, in fact, claim to be superior to the Lord. When God says, “Do not…,” the sinful heart says, “I know better. I’ll do it anyway.” When God says, “By grace you are saved through faith,” the perverse human heart says, “I must have to do something to earn God’s favor.”
Sin turns everything upside down. The sinful heart does not want the God of the Bible—the God who promised and sent Christ. The rebellious heart resists the grace of God and wants instead a god without the cross of Christ. A god who accepts good intentions and sincere effort. A god who will not punish sin. A god “who accepts us just the way we are.” A god who ignores human depravity.
Through Isaiah, the Lord declares to such people (to people like us): “This people draw near with their mouth and honor Me with their lips, while their hearts are far from Me, and their fear of Me is a commandment taught by men.” The Lord isn’t about to be molded by His rebellious people to fit their sinful desires. Instead, He condemns their idol worship for the false doctrine that it is.
The warning is simple, frightening, and timely: for those who do not have a proper fear of God, the Scriptures will remain a sealed book. Unbelievers cannot comprehend God’s Word. However, this doesn’t stop them from thinking they do—that they have the correct understanding and believers have it wrong. Thus, God’s Word will often be invoked to defend all sorts of false teaching and sin.
That’s the warning. Here’s the Good News: the Lord is always faithful. For along with the words of judgment, the Lord also repeats His promise of the Messiah. He declares that He will “do wonderful things.” In that day the deaf shall hear… the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.”
You hear of the Holy One in our Gospel. Jesus is making the blind see and the deaf hear. He is giving hope and joy to the poor and the meek. Wonderful things are happening! The Pharisees and the scribes are unhappy with this Messiah, though. He is turning their whole world upside down. And their present complaint is a biggie: Jesus’ disciples do not wash their hands before they eat!
Don’t laugh. This is a serious matter to the scribes and Pharisees. It’s not in the Bible, but they’re teaching it’s a sin to not wash your hands before you eat. Just to be clear, I do appreciate good hygiene. I’m not against the signs posted in restaurant lavatories: “Employees must wash their hands before returning to work.” But what’s going on here is far more sinister. And it doesn’t have anything to do with germs. The hand washing they insist upon is to get rid of any uncleanness they might pick up from contact with the Gentiles!
But this is just a symptom of something even more insidious happening here. In their painstaking care of the Law, the Pharisees have falsely concluded that you’re saved by keeping the Law—most certainly including all the little rules they’ve added to it themselves. They’re teaching salvation by works!
How can this be? After all, this is not what the Bible teaches, and they are the professional biblical interpreters and teachers. But because they have no faith in the promised Messiah, they cannot rightly understand the Word. However, they are completely convinced that they’ve gotten the Word right. And if they are right, that can only mean that Jesus is wrong! Thus, they reject Jesus, all the while believing that it is the godly thing to do. They’ve turned everything upside down.
They’ve rewritten God’s plan for salvation, and now they expect the Son of God to conform to their revision. But once again, the Master Potter refuses to be molded by the clay. And He rebukes them for their unbelief. You know what happens then: the Pharisees and scribes plot to kill Jesus, eventually succeeding. If God isn’t going to approve of their religion, then it’s time to kill off God.
God gives us His Law and we have two possible reactions. The first reaction is this: We realize that we are failing miserably, and try as hard as we might, we cannot keep God’s holy Law perfectly. At this point, if we don’t hear about God’s grace, about Christ coming to keep the Law for us, we are left in despair and hopelessness. The other reaction to the Law is just as dangerous. We may look at the Law and conclude that we are doing just fine. This, I fear, is the most common among us. We are hypocrites, Pharisees at heart.
How often when you hear a preacher talk about the sins of society do you think to yourself: “Well, I least I’m not doing that!” Dear people of God, it doesn’t matter what sin we speak of, you and I are guilty of it. Jesus always pushes God’s Law to our breaking point. He sets the bar so high that no one can reach it. He does this not to push us to despair but to draw us to Him as our Savior.
It is only in seeing that we are “poor miserable sinners” who “sin in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and left undone” that we can see our total need for Christ—His saving work for us, His atoning death as paying the debt for our sin, His perfect life of holiness and righteousness lived for us. That is the purpose of the Law. To show you your sin and spiritual poverty. To drive you to repentance, casting yourself upon the mercy of God. So that you might behold the wonderful things God has done for you in His Son, Jesus Christ.
Wonder upon wonder, Jesus, the Holy One of Israel, has come for you. He lived a perfectly holy life and kept the Law for you. He laid down His sinless life for you on the cross and then took it up again for you.
Ascended to the Father’s right hand, He continues to be with you always in His means of grace. Through His holy Word preached and read, He speaks His grace to you. He gives you faith. He opens your ears to hear the words of His book. He opens your eyes to see His cross. In Holy Baptism, He cleanses you of every spot, stain, and blemish of sin. In Holy Communion, He feeds you with His body and blood to strengthen and preserve you in body and soul unto life everlasting.
All that you might see and hear and believe this wonderful Good News: You are forgiven for all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.